Jan Schultz taught her kids to ride bikes on the trails under the water towers at Shasta and Park Hills Road.
Now those trails are gone and seven tall pine trees stand like doomed sentries guarding the hill that has been partially excavated to make room for the 7,000 to 10,000 square-foot Hills Fire Station.
“The hill used to be covered with greenery,” Schultz said, moving her hand from one side to the other to encompass the entire landscape.
The residents use this area as a little park, she said. They walk their dogs, feed the birds and the squirrels, and enjoy the semi-wilderness that faces the fountain and concrete sign that serves as the gateway to the Park Hills neighborhood.
City voters approved funding for a new Hills Fire Station in 1992 as part of Measure G, which promised a multi-jurisdictional fire station in a region where there is the greatest danger for a firestorm resulting from an earthquake or other disaster.
Since the passage of Measure G, Schultz and others have raised questions about the size and purpose of the proposed fire station, and the legality of the proposal. They are asking whether the station fits into the specifications of Measure G and they have threatened legal action against the city.
Others say the new fire station is critical and argue that a judge will agree that Measure G funds can be used to pay for it.
Councilmember Betty Olds, who represents the area, contends the “vast majority” support the new station.
“This is the Fire Department’s preferred site,” she said. “They have to have a site where they can have a quick response to the threat of wildfire from Tilden Park.”
Jack Washburn, a former fire safety commissioner, agrees with Olds. In a letter to the Daily Planet Washburn blasted the opponents of the station, calling them “a small well-organized group of people...many of whom are not even close neighbors of the proposed site.”
Washburn says the site at Shasta and Park Hills roads is large enough for a “first-class facility,” which would be critical to fighting a hills fire.
Residents opposing the new station wonder if it is necessary. They say they would rather keep using the current 1,600-foot Firestation 7, just three blocks away. They want to use Measure G funds to retrofit it.
And Andrea Cukor argues that the new station will add nothing.
“We’re not getting any extra support,” Cukor said, noting that the same three-person crew would be on duty at the new station. “The city isn’t being up front about this. It’s absurd to build this Taj Mahal of fire prevention for this,” said David Johnson.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington explained that the idea outlined by Measure G, when it passed in 1992, was to retrofit the existing fire station and build a new multi-jurisdictional station to be shared by Berkeley and Oakland. The measure G funds would have been used to pay for the retrofitting and one-fourth of the new station; its bill would have been shared by both cities, the East Bay Municipal Utility Department and the East Bay Regional Parks District.
However, the cities could not agree on a site, so Oakland built its own station in the Oakland Hills leaving Berkeley high and dry.
As a result, the city developed a proposal to build the new station at Shasta and Park Hills roads and abandon the old station. Building the new station requires validation action – going before a judge – because the plan is not consistent with the language in Measure G.
In June the City Council unanimously approved a validation action to get a judge’s permission to use measure G funds to build the Hills Station.
If this process is contested, court proceedings may take up to a year or more, Worthington said.
The neighbors say they would not mind the delay.
“(The station) would change the neighborhood from a rural-appearing area to an industrial one,” Schultz said.
Louise Larson, a neighbor of Schultz agrees.
“It’s not that we oppose the fire station, we support responsible fire protection,” she said. “We oppose this building.”